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Crit Rev Biochem Mol Biol. 2018 Feb;53(1):99-114. doi: 10.1080/10409238.2017.1412395. Epub 2017 Dec 18.

The impact of non-genetic heterogeneity on cancer cell death.

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a Cancer Biology Program , Stanford University School of Medicine , Stanford , CA , USA.
b Department of Biology , Stanford University , Stanford , CA , USA.


The goal of cancer chemotherapy is to induce homogeneous cell death within the population of targeted cancer cells. However, no two cells are exactly alike at the molecular level, and sensitivity to drug-induced cell death, therefore, varies within a population. Genetic alterations can contribute to this variability and lead to selection for drug resistant clones. However, there is a growing appreciation for the role of non-genetic variation in producing drug-tolerant cellular states that exhibit reduced sensitivity to cell death for extended periods of time, from hours to weeks. These cellular states may result from individual variation in epigenetics, gene expression, metabolism, and other processes that impact drug mechanism of action or the execution of cell death. Such population-level non-genetic heterogeneity may contribute to treatment failure and provide a cellular "substrate" for the emergence of genetic alterations that confer frank drug resistance.


Cell death; apoptosis; cancer; heterogeneity; single-cell

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